Football

Catawba tops Mars Hill 28-21

By Mike London, The Salisbury Post

Last Tuesday, when someone reminded Catawba head coach David Bennett that no team had scored more than 19 points on Mars Hill’s defense this season, Bennett had the perfect retort.

“Not yet,” he replied with a challenging gleam in his eye. “Not yet.”

Bennett’s confidence in his offense proved justified. The Indians produced four touchdowns Saturday at Shuford Stadium— all on passes by quarterback Luke Samples — and outscored SAC rival Mars Hill 28-21.“We came here expecting a 7-6 game,” said Lions coach Tim Clifton, whose 25th-ranked team needs one more win for the most in school history. “All year, we’ve been very good at not giving up big plays, but Catawba hit us with some today.”

“We scored 28 points against a mighty good defense,” said Bennett. “Mars Hill held Western Carolina to 15. So I’d say 28 is a pretty good day’s work.”

It was certainly a hard day’s work. Tough enough that this one should have been played on Labor Day.

Catawba, ranked 10th, had to earn a super-sized victory that pushes it one giant step closer to the national playoffs and secures no worse than a tie for another SAC championship.

Catawba (8-1, 5-1) hit two momentum-producing bombs and put together one nice sustained drive to build up a lead large enough to hold off the Lions (7-3, 4-2).

“People think our offense is young and weak,” said Samples. “But we think we’re the No.1 offense in this league. We know that we can put up some points.”

Balance was key. Samples tossed for 176 yards without an interception, while hard-running Rodney Wallace banged out 123 on the ground. On a 20-carry workhorse day, Wallace never took one step back.

Wideout Nick Means wiped out any hangover from last week’s loss with a stunning 65-yard TD catch on the game’s fifth play. Samples, under a heavy rush on third-and-9, said he never saw Means’ magic.

“They told me it was a pretty good catch,” deadpanned Samples. Pretty good? Sure, like the Mona Lisa was a pretty good painting.

It looked like Samples’ throw was at least 5 yards too long. But Means got his right hand on the ball, tipped it in the air and latched on at the Mars Hill 30, then loped into the end zone with his prize.

“The coaches tell us to always run right through the ball,” said Means. “I was just lucky I got my hand on it.”

“That kind of catch is what we’ve come to expect from Nick,” said fellow wideout O.J. Lennon. “Anything less than unbelievable is not enough.”

“We were like, ‘Oh no, Luke’s overthrown him,’ ” said receivers coach Chip Hester. “It looked like Nick dropped it twice and caught it three times. It was a great effort.”

The Indians made it 14-0 on their second possession, pounding out 75 yards on 14 plays. The TD came when Samples nailed Lennon in the ribs with a 7-yard fastball.

“Luke stuck that one in there,” laughed Lennon. “Not much choice but to catch it.”

Just as Arnold Gaither had no choice but to catch the pass Samples delivered into his hands after the 6-foot-4 wideout broke clean to the post late in the first half.

“Big target, easy throw,” said Samples. “Arnold burned his man bad. He roasted him.”

“Arnold ran a great route, spun his defender completely around,” said Hester. “And we’ve got a gunslinger who can get the ball to him.”

After Gaither’s grab, the Indians led 21-0, but it wasn’t over. After being held without a first down for nearly 24 humiliating minutes in the first half, the Lions turned a rout into a rip-snorter in the second.

“First half we tried to trick them,” said Clifton. “In the second, we decided to line up and run it at straight at them. Shoulda done it earlier. After that we played them toe-to-toe.”

The Lions got on the board in the third quarter when Carlos Gatlin split Shawn Sanders and Jemonte Battle on a keeper around right end.

But no problem. Catawba answered immediately. The Indians followed up Preston Lewis’ big kickoff return with a second TD from the Lennon-Samples combo, a pair that’s producing music as sweet as Lennon-McCartney ever did. Lennon had to leap this time, but happily showed off his impressive hops.

That TD made it 28-6, but then things went haywire. The Lions scored two TDs early in the fourth quarter in a span of 52 seconds. Suddenly it was 28-21.

The second TD in that scary flurry came when Samples was fighting for yardage at the Catawba 10 and had the ball yanked from his grasp by the Lions. That mishap put serious pressure on the Indian defense, but it was up to the task.

Darris Morris and Piotr Kalinowski, who apparently had Pole position, raced in to force a fourth-down incompletion after Mars Hill had moved to the Catawba 49 with 3:43 on the clock. Then Battle picked off a pass to end the Lions’ last serious threat with 1:43 remaining.

“We had our opportunities, but we gave them too big a lead,” said Mars Hill’s stud linebacker Khalid Abdullah. “Catawba is not a powerhouse, but it is a very good team.”

“Not pretty, but it was effective,” summed up Bennett. “We did what we had to do.”

In other words, a pretty good day’s work.

***

NOTES: David Huey and Todd McComb had six tackles each. ... Corey Reese picked off a pass. ... Cedric Squirewell extended his streak to 32 games in a row with at least one catch. ... Lenoir-Rhyne’s next for Catawba.

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